NEEDLE DROP NOTES
January 16, 2017 posted by James Parten

Pondering “Go Get The Ax”

Tom Klein’s recent posting here of Alaska (1930, Universal), one of the “Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit” cartoons done by Walter Lantz and Bill Nolan, has opened up a good can o’worms.

The cartoon’s score features such public-domain favorites as “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me” and “Pop! Goes The Weasel”. But it also features another song whose provenance has yet to be completely figured out.

According to various websites, the song is known as “Go Get The Ax”, after a repeated motif found in almost every chorus that has been collected.

bugs-banjo-225This song is best known to cartoon fans from its use in I. Freleng’s Hare Trigger (1945), the earliest appearance of Yosemite Sam in a Bugs Bunny short. Bugs is singing this song, to the accompaniment of his own banjo, while riding in the mail car of a train in the Old West. Buts gets through a stanza and a half of these non-sequiturs before he is interrupted from outside by what turn out to be some of his “poor relatives always out for a touch!”.

In Alaska, a sourdough (otherwise unidentified) sings three stanzas of this piece before he is silenced by a bartender. His text differs a little form the usual texts found on various sites through Google-search, in that he transposes a couple of things in the second chorus (“Go get the flea, there’s an ax in Lizzie’s ear!”), and he includes a line “Sitting on a buzzsaw/a hand-embroidered buzzsaw”) not found in any other text.

boys-best-friendSome of the sites that include the lyrics–go Google “Go Get The Ax”, and you’ll find them yourself–indicate that this is a “campfire song”, without getting more specific than that. However, I have my own theory as to the origins of this number.

That theory revolves around another motif, that is used to end every stanza.

“A Boy’s Best Friend Is His Mother” is one of those aphorisms that can be found in sentimental/moralistic songs of the period between the War Between the States and the First World War. The song was apparently introduced by Joseph E. Howard, a tireless singer and even more tireless self-promoter who associated with a number of hit songs of the 1890′s and 1900′s. (These include “Hallo, Ma Baby” (later used in One Froggy Evening) and “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now”.).

Howard is not known to have recorded the song himself–and he recorded at intervals in a career that stretched into the 1960′s. But there were recordings made as early as 1909 by the English tenor Ernest Pike. This song was also revived by Vernon Dalhart, who was the first superstar of country music–and who recorded it for everybody that would have him–and everybody would!

The melody for “Go Get The Ax” had already been established by the time it was used in Alaska. Curiously, it would be adapted into another song with a cartoon connection: “I Like Mountain Music” (which became the title of one of the first of the “magazine-coves-come-to-life” cartoons from Warner Bros.).

It is possible that the origins of “Go Get The Ax” may well be lost in the mists of time. It could be that it originated as “special material” for some singer in vaudeville–that presentation of live entertainment that was so popular between 1900 and 1935.

The melody was set by 1930, and by then it had the status of a traditional folk song.

5 Comments

  • You have to wonder if Michael Maltese remembered this song from the Oswald cartoon or from non-theatrical roots when he did the story for “Hare Trigger”, or if Mike and Friz just wanted a nonsense song for Bugs to sing to start the cartoon and Carl Stalling remembered this public domain one and suggested it as an appropriate piece.

  • Very interesting post. I wonder about the origins of that little ditty as well, and it did seem in the cartoons of the earliest period of animation that mock-ups of just about every race and dialect seemed so often to be used, but I wonder whether this was a mirror of vaudeville of the time. I was watching one of the Wheeler and Woolsey RKO films, one taking place in the South; we’re talking about films made well after the end of slavery. I saw so much comedy there that was reflected in animated cartoons as well, proof positive that animation in general was created for a wide audience, even if the main characters were funny animal characters. So many early talkie films featured songs and dialogue that were used as fodder in animated cartoons through the 1940′s. It is no wonder that kids didn’t always understand the humor, but I’m glad that there are sources out there o the net that will give you a clear-headed account of how that history unfolds. As stated, it is possible that songs were often used because they were in the public domain; hey, that is why the tune to a song like “THIS OLD MAN” had their melodies reworked in cartoons as late as Bob Clampett’s “BEANY AND CECIL SHOW” (as tune for the signature song of the Robot Ants in the second episode of the first half hour).

  • These interstitial songs have always fascinated me. I figured the title on this one to be Peeking Through the Knothole In Grandpa’s Wooden Leg. The tunes from One Froggy Evening were cleverly chosen and perfectly performed. Much of my musical knowledge came from Bugs Bunny cartoons and outtakes and jams from Let It Be by the Beatles.

  • A boyhood favorite was this version sung by Will Ryan, “The Horses Run Around” (LINK) from a Disney children’s album. It’s been softened a bit for the preschool audience—but not a lot. As a kid, I already recognized it from Bugs Bunny.

    Various threads on Mudcat (link, link) trace additional variants of the song and verify, among other things, that the title “The Horses Run Around” seems to predate Disney/Ryan.

  • I seem to recall there being a close-up of Bugs’ luggage tag on that cartoon. Anyone know what became of it?

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